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My Family Moved To Canada To Be Health-Care Workers. Who Cares For Those Left Behind?

My grandmother's sick without family in the Philippines, and the distance hurts.

Some days, my grandmother’s caregivers would relay good news: “Her legs are less swollen,” “She had appetite today.” Other days, the updates on our family’s Facebook group were grim: “We panicked because she couldn’t breathe.”

News like the latter would render us helpless. When you know a loved one is fighting for her life, and all you can offer are words through a screen, you feel each metre of separation like a stab in the heart.

Worrying about sick loved ones back home is a shared experience in the Filipino diaspora.
Saksit Kuson / EyeEm via Getty Images
Worrying about sick loved ones back home is a shared experience in the Filipino diaspora.

My 91-year-old lola (grandmother) fell and broke her femur in February — it happened in the Philippines before the world seemed to stop because of the COVID-19 crisis. When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic last month, it added another layer of worry, especially for my mom and her sisters here in Canada.

My mother and aunts, like thousands of Filipino nurses and health-care professionals, left the Philippines and their loved ones to take care of strangers in other countries, providing them with love and support as if they’re family. Although they’d never really say it, I know it takes a toll seeing our family’s matriarch in pain. Alone. Fighting for her life. At the mercy of strangers.

Strong family ties define Philippine society. Our connection goes beyond the nuclear family to extended relatives — aunts, uncles and cousins — to family friends. From a young age, we are conditioned to try and provide for our families as much as we can, sometimes to a fault.

“You see social media posts describing how a loved one passed away, alone, in the Philippines.”

The majority of Filipinos who leave home for countries like Canada, Australia and the U.S. do so with the dream of supporting their families. It’s so common that in 2017, Filipino workers’ remittances contributed to 10 per cent of the Philippines’ economic growth. In 2019, remittances from Filipino workers abroad reached a record high of $33.5 billion, 3.9 per cent higher than the $32.2 billion from the previous year.

The studies on the experiences of Filipino health-care workers and their families are few, but many in the Filipino diaspora have felt the consequences of moving abroad. It can mean missing valuable family time and milestones like birthdays, or being robbed of the opportunity to take care of family members who are ill.

You can’t escape the stories. Aboard flights to Manila, you know at least one of the hundreds of passengers on the plane is on their way home because a relative is ill or worse, dead. With the COVID-19 pandemic, you see posts on social media describing how a loved one passed away, alone, in the Philippines.

Most Filipinos leave the country to work in health care; it’s so common there are memes about it. But when laughter fades, we’re left with a question: Who cares for those left behind?

‘It feels even farther when a loved one is sick’

It was the third time that my mom called me sobbing in the past two months. The first time was when she told me lola fell and needed surgery. Days later, she called again because my lola broke down and demanded all of us — her kids and grandkids — to come home to the Philippines. The third time, she told me lola had to be resuscitated because she had a hard time breathing.

“It’s so frustrating. Canada is so far,” my mom cried as we spoke on the phone.

Conversations by phone or video chat aren't the same as being there for a loved one.
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images
Conversations by phone or video chat aren't the same as being there for a loved one.

I wanted to say something, but I could not dispute a fact. I acknowledged the reality that my family lives in. You can’t help but feel helpless when a loved one is far away, more so, if they’re sick. I experienced the same helplessness when my mom was rushed to a Vancouver hospital last year, and I was across the country in Toronto aching for updates.

But what do you do when you’re nearly 10,000 km away from the person you love? When instead of feeding them and changing their clothes, you just wave and smile and bite your tongue, and will yourself to never cry on video because crying means you’re sad, and sadness will make them worry?

Now, with more than 6,000 cases of COVID-19 in the Philippines and my grandma’s pre-existing illness, our worries grew. I’m also worried for my mother and her sisters who work at the frontlines, providing care and service to Canadians while thinking about their mother in the Philippines.

My mom was right, Canada is far. It feels even farther when a loved one is sick.

“Holding lola’s hand, it reminded me of the times when she told me how proud she was of her kids and her grandkids.”

When my grandma demanded all of us to go home two months ago, we knew we had to do it. My mom booked an emergency vacation, taking two weeks with no pay. My aunts did the same thing. My mom was on the plane to Manila while my grandma was in the operating room. I could only imagine what it was like — disconnected from the world for 13 hours, uncertain about the outcome of lola’s surgery.

I arrived in the Philippines on a warm February day. My extended family was in the living room and lola was sitting in her wheelchair. Her legs were swollen, she looked older but she smelled the same. She stared at me and silently wiped tears from her eyes.

It had been a couple of days since she left the hospital. Her surgery was successful, but the recovery was challenging. My mom and her sisters arrived days before me and took care of lola. They also trained people to look after her when they go back to Canada. They taught them what time to give her medicine, how to properly dress her bruises and how to contact us for questions or even just to say “Hi.”

“Go eat,” lola said.

“I’m OK,” I replied, lying because I just wanted to stay and hold her hand.

When I was 13, my mom moved to Canada for work. She left on Christmas Day. I lived with my grandparents in the Philippines and lola served as the mother figure I needed. She taught me to try my best and to value family. She made me understand that my mom went away for me. She taught me to never question my mom’s decision, but instead to be grateful. In a society that values strong family ties and togetherness, mine felt like an anomaly. My mom was in Canada. My dad lived in another city. I was living with my grandparents. But I never felt different. Lolo (grandfather) and lola made sure I got all the love and support I needed.

Holding lola’s hand, it reminded me of the times when she told me how proud she was of her kids and grandkids. She considered us all her life’s best gift. For all the years that we lived in Canada, lola showed resilience when she was overcome with feelings of missing us. She often credits her faith for getting through — and I credit her for what my family’s become.

My lola still hasn’t regained her strength and continues to rely on her caretakers for support. I wish we could be beside her during these times. But, perhaps, it’s not physically caring for her and being with her that matters. It’s making sure we keep in touch and assure her that no matter the distance, even during a pandemic, she is never forgotten.

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